“The First Fire” — Excerpt from UP IN FLAMES

UpInFlamesCoverArt

A serial arsonist’s path of destruction has turned into an eerie serial murder, and jurisdiction falls to the FBI’s resident expert on the bizarre, and the only forensic lab in the country equipped to handle tracking down a renegade psychopath. Are Doctor Faith MacKenzie and her team ready for what they’re about to uncover?

A mysterious serial arsonist has been setting fires over the Witch Hollow area for months, and when a charred body turns up at the most recent arson scene, Faith and Jonathan are called to the scene. While Faith begins the process of identifying the victim and determining cause of death, Jonathan suspects the danger runs deeper than either of them could have predicted. As the number of fires, and the body count, grows, the partners will have to ask themselves what’s most important — bringing down a killer, or finding the truth.

“The First Fire” — Excerpt from Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book 2: Up In Flames

The blare of sirens jerked Doctor Faith MacKenzie from sleep. Through sleep-blurred eyes, she watched the whirl of colored lights dance across her bedroom wall and disappear, then closed her eyes again. She needed her sleep. Since the Bunker joined forces with the FBI a month ago, on a case so strange it left her questioning her own reality, her sleep was sporadic at best. More often than not, memories of events she still couldn’t reconcile tore any chance of sleep from her, leaving her in her studio at all hours, trying to forget the images of an obsidian knife biting through flesh, and blood covering her hands, clothes, and the floor of her lab.

She touched her fingers to her throat, aware the soreness lingering there was little more than memory, even if the yellowing bruises were not. Faith shuddered. She often woke unable to breathe, with the phantom sensation of hard fingers digging into her throat, or the impossible pressure of a hand as cold as the grave wrapped around her heart.

If only those were the worst of her recent memories, she might be able to ignore them. After all, Rene Haley was dead, the case closed. However, for the past week, the memory of a brutal dismemberment case they just wrapped up four days ago plagued her sleep. She still couldn’t say for sure what caused some of the marks on that body, regardless of her new partner’s assurance they had enough evidence for a conviction.

She started to drift back to sleep, only to be jolted awake again by the shrill tone of her cell phone, on the nightstand beside her bed. Fumbling for the device, she punched accept without looking and put the unit to her ear as she fell back against the pillows with a muttered, “This had better be good.”

Special Agent Jonathan Caulder’s wry chuckle filled her ear. “Good morning to you, too. I don’t suppose you heard the sirens screaming through town.”

She refused to open her eyes. He would go away, if she just pretended he wasn’t there. Then, with a sigh, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “Mmm. And if I was a firefighter, I might be concerned.”

“C’mon, Mac. Batter up — we have a dead body.”

She swung her legs out of bed, and groaned as she sat up. “No way can they know that yet. I doubt the flames are even out. Besides, what can’t wait until a decent hour? And what’s this ‘we’? Since when are fire-related deaths considered an FBI matter?”

“Since a scorched body ran out of a burning building, screaming about demons.”

Ice plunged through Faith, and she groaned again, in disbelief. Not again. “Demons.”

“Yup. Up and at ’em, Mac. Wetherly already signed over jurisdiction. Meet you at the crime scene — I’ll text you the address.”

Before she could protest that bodies neither ran nor screamed, he hung up, and her phone beeped, indicating an incoming text. Glancing down at her phone, she pressed open and her eyes widened at the address showing on her phone’s screen.

Look for this second book in Guardian, Inc: Witch Hollow

Available Now! 

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Guardians Witch Hollow Meme

“The Threat” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Witch Hollow)

 

What happens when you bring together the best independent forensic lab in the country, one of the leading pathologists and criminal profilers in the world, and a Federal agent with a very unique skill set, and a gun loaded with Slayer bullets?

Welcome to Witch Hollow!

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When a wealthy philanthropist is found dead in a locked room, with no apparent cause of death beyond the faint scent of incense, Dr. Faith MacKenzie and her team have their work cut out for them. As the case starts to go cold, she’ll be forced to turn to a man with abilities in which she can’t bring herself to believe, and credentials that leave her no choice but to accept the possibility he might just be on the level.

 

“The Threat” — Excerpt from SIGHT UNSEEN (Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, Book #1):

“We’re on the same side, here, Agent Caulder.” The man glanced down at the weapon laying on the table. “We both want this monster dead.”

“You threatened my partner. We’re not even close to on the same side.” Jonathan didn’t budge, his hand resting on the gun threateningly. No matter what this asshole thought, Jonathan was onto him. He knew way too much about the Crucibani to ever fall for their shit.

One silvered brow rose. “I thought your partner was that abomination Jason Guardian convinced the Vatican to release.”

No mistaking the derision in that description. While he didn’t worry about Reesha like he did Mac, Jonathan didn’t like the sound of that comment. “Her, too. You come near either one of them, again, and I’ll give you a brand new definition of Hell.”

The Crucibani assassin snorted, rising to his feet. “If Haliatus gets to either one of them, first, it is you who will know Hell, Agent Caulder, not I.  You really have no choice but to let me do what I was sent to do. Keep your…partner out of my way, and she’ll be safe.”

Jonathan swore a blue streak inwardly as he glared a hole in the back of the man’s retreating head. They both knew he couldn’t do anything more than threaten, unless the Crucibani broke the law, which they were always careful to never do. At least, not with witnesses or evidence around. If he wanted to catch this bastard, he was going to have to find a way to tell Mac the truth. And that would be a disaster of biblical proportions.

Look for the explosive first book of Guardians, Inc: Witch Hollow, SIGHT UNSEEN — coming from Esther Mitchell and Desert Breeze Publishing on October 11, 2016.

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

 

Talk about murder, Justin thought with dark humor as he dropped wearily into his chair after dealing with the inevitable circling of media vultures on the courthouse steps. He hated celebrity murders. He stared listlessly at the piles of paperwork that somehow always managed to congregate on his desk whenever he was in court. If looks could have killed, both he and the not-so-Honorable Willard Jennings would be dead men. Chelsea’s stormy eyes had shot lightning bolts at them that would have done Zeus proud. She made her disdain of Jennings’ role in this trial clear in her comments to the press.

For his part, Justin should be thrilled he drew a misogynist like Jennings to preside over a spousal-murder case involving a female defendant. Especially going up against Chelsea. Word around the office was Jennings had some kind of personal grudge against Chelsea Hanover. Yet the memory of her pale, lock-kneed courage clenched his gut, and he wished they pulled Halvanes, a feminist of the nth degree.

Chelsea had no way of knowing how much he detested Jennings’ degrading remarks at her expense, or worried about the vulnerability Justin saw in her eyes when she first realized she pulled Jennings. She’d looked ready to burst into tears for a moment, and the potential punched a hole the size of the Grand Canyon in his gut. Sighing heavily, Justin closed his eyes and rubbed his face as if that could banish the feelings stirring in him.

“Why so glum, Justin? I hear the big case is going well.”

Justin looked up to see Mack Martin, the Allegheny County District Attorney and his best friend since college, leaning in the doorway. Just what he needed today; one of Mack’s Semper Fi pep talks. A burst of dark humor went through Justin.

God, they must brainwash Marines in boot camp.

“Yeah.” He tried to work up enthusiasm, but Chelsea’s pale face hung before his mind’s eye, dampening his triumph. “It’s going great. All the evidence is pretty conclusive, and I’ve got Jennings presiding. I should be able to nail this one to the wall without much effort.”

“So why are you sitting here looking like someone just shot your dog?” Mack asked, stepping into the office and closing the door. Justin stiffened, frowning. Mack never closed doors for his little pep talks. Not unless they were potentially embarrassing to his staff.

“I’m up against Hanover again,” he finally admitted in a mutter.

Mack winced, but grinned. “Hey, she’s a pretty straight arrow, Justin. At least you don’t have to worry about perjured witnesses or sticky forensics from her. And she’s easy on the eye, too, you know?”

Justin bristled, not liking the glimmer of interest in Mack’s hazel eyes. But he forced himself calm. After all, who the hell was he to deny it, when he wanted Chelsea to the point of distraction? Calling himself a hypocrite didn’t cool his agitation. He didn’t want anyone else looking at her the way he did. Forcing the issue aside, he practically growled, “Yeah, but she also doesn’t take a case unless she’s sure of her client’s innocence.”

“And that’s got you worried?” Mack suddenly looked concerned, himself. He leaned his arms on the back of the chair opposite Justin, his expression pensive. “Look, Justin, I gave you carte blanche on this case, but not with the intention of driving it into the ground. We’ve dealt with some sticky cases before, but nothing like this. I don’t like the evidence we’ve got. It seems a little… ah, hell, Jus, it’s circumstantial, at best.”

What?” Justin sat bolt upright. He hadn’t known Mack reviewed the case at all. “We’ve got a solid–“

“Not really.” Mack’s shoulders slumped. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about Dominic Cavarella, and you can bet Hanover will be pulling them all out at some point. Hell, there are even serious questions about the feasibility of the murder as the police have it outlined.”

Justin went absolutely still. “What are you saying?”

Mack’s hazel eyes were troubled, when he met Justin’s gaze and a pang of doubt twisted through Justin. Mack looked weary.

“Damn it, Justin, if I was a juror, based on our evidence, I can’t say I’d be willing to convict Marlene Cavarella. I mean, I’ve seen the woman before, and I have to tell you, I’m amazed if she really did pull it off.”

Justin shifted in his seat, recalling Chelsea’s open scorn on that very issue. “Maybe she had an accomplice,” he said. “I’m already looking into the possibility.”

Mack’s frown deepened. “And maybe she was set up.”

“Are you saying we should just drop the charges? She’s already been arraigned, Mack…”

“What I’m saying,” Mack said with uncharacteristic grimness, “is tread lightly, with this one. You tend to be a bludgeon with the law, and this case isn’t going to be that easy. Be open to ideas or deals if Hanover comes to you, and work with her on this one, Justin. We don’t want to lock up an innocent woman any more than we want to let a guilty one get away with murder. Okay?”

Justin nodded glumly, and started to speak, but a sharp rapping at the door cut him off. Mack lifted one eyebrow in question, rose to his feet, and opened the door.

“Blakely, I’ve got to talk to you.” Chelsea burst into the office, looking out of sorts, and too sexy for her own good, Justin decided as his heart and gut slammed together, sucking the breath from him. She gathered a deep breath in the same instant, and the significance of it punched Justin between the eyes. Behind her, he saw Mack raise a surprised brow.

“I’m in a meeting, Counselor.” Justin regained his composure first.

Chelsea blinked, and gasped as she glanced back and saw Mack. Mack, ever the Irish charmer, flashed her a wide grin and a wink, and Justin’s good humor fled. Mack Martin was an attractive man, and a born charmer who, at thirty-six, had women following him around in droves. That Chelsea could be one of them…

She smiled apologetically at Mack. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt…”

“Hey, pretty ladies are never an interruption.” Mack shot her another roguish grin. “I’m Mack Martin, by the way.”

“Chelsea Hanover. I know who you are, Mr. Martin. I was glad to see you get elected this term.” As she gave Mack a shy smile, jealousy slashed though Justin again, startling him. He wasn’t the possessive type, but for reasons he couldn’t explain, Chelsea stirred all sorts of primal urges in him — not least of which was the desire to pull her into his arms and stake his claim in a way that would no doubt get his face slapped.

“All right, Mack, leave the lady alone,” he said, trying for the teasing camaraderie he often used at Yale to pull his flirtatious friend back on task. Evidently, his attempt fell flat, since both Mack and Chelsea turned to regard him in surprise — Mack’s turning to a roguish grin, and Chelsea with the look of a cornered doe.

Damn.

“I’m outta here,” Mack said, tipping an imaginary cap to Chelsea. “Nice to meet you, Chelsea. Justin, remember what I said,” he warned, then winked and, devilish gleam in his eye, added, “Play nice, you two.”

As the door closed behind Mack, Chelsea’s bemused gaze moved between it and Justin. “What was that all about?”

Justin shrugged. “Mack likes to give little pep talks to everyone around here — too many years as a Marine, I guess.” He leaned back, letting his gaze slide over her appreciatively. God, the woman always looked good. She definitely looked much better now than she had earlier, in court. There was color in her cheeks again, and her blue eyes were vibrant. “So what brings you down here? Already want to cut a deal?”

Temper flashed in her eyes, making him wonder if she applied the same passion to every aspect of her life. It unsettled him, how badly he wanted to know the answer.

“No deals, Blakely,” she snapped stiffly. “I don’t plead innocent people guilty.”

He shook his head in wry amusement. With her prickly shell, it was amazing she hadn’t ended up in contempt of court. “How do you manage to sleep at night?”

She blinked, clearly nonplussed. “Excuse me?”

“With all that passion and conviction, I’m amazed you can wind down enough to sleep.”

Chelsea averted her gaze. “I manage just fine. Are we going to discuss this case or not?”

He eyed her warily. “You said you weren’t here to deal…”

“I’m not,” she confirmed, then withdrew a sheaf of papers from her briefcase — God, didn’t she go anywhere without that thing? — and held them out, frowning. “I’d like your support in backing up my petition to the court to have Judge Jennings recuse himself on the grounds of personal bias.”

Watching the nervous way her gaze jumped from the papers to his face and back, and the way she licked those sexy-as-hell lips, Justin resisted the urge to smile. This was going to be fun. His expression deadpan, he leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest as he regarded her speculatively. “Now, why would I do that?”

“In the interest of justice,” she said with a defiant tilt of her chin. “I know you think you’re above fair play, but there’ll be no such thing as a fair trial with Jennings on the bench, and I’ll tie this whole farce of a trial up in appeal, if I have to.”

Her words stung. Didn’t she think he knew about Jennings’ bias? Didn’t she think he was as anxious to remove bias from these proceedings, in the interest of justice, as she was? Studying her wary, defiant stance, he sighed. Evidently, she thought nothing of the kind.

“I’m sure we can come to an agreement of some kind,” he said, striving for nonchalance he no longer felt. “How about we meet somewhere for dinner tonight, and discuss it?”

Just like that, an arctic chill wrapped around Chelsea’s entire posture, and her eyes grew icy and hard.

“How about we settle it here and now?” She bit out the words, each one snapping with disdain. “This isn’t a game, Mr. Blakely, and I’m not a prize to be won.”

“I never said you were.” Justin blew out a short breath. Damn, what did it take to get close to this woman? To be honest, he was as surprised as she about the dinner invitation. He wanted her, sure, but he wasn’t about to use this case to get to her. It was unethical, and she was too close to it, for reasons that mystified him.

“Sorry, Chelsea. I didn’t actually mean that the way it sounded. I guess… I’m just worried about you.” When her eyes flared with surprise, he shrugged uncomfortably. “You didn’t look too steady in there, today, and I was just thinking you seem the type who ties herself up in knots over a case, and doesn’t eat or sleep. You need both.”

Her expression softened, her eyes shimmering with gratitude, and Justin’s heart squeezed. God, he wanted to hold her. Just wrap her up in his arms and keep her safe. He frowned at his own thoughts. He never had these feelings, before.

“Thanks for the offer, and the thought, but I’m doing okay.” She met his gaze, then. “Can you help me with the judge?”

“Yeah.” He gave her a small smile, and the first olive branch of their ‘war’. “I’d already planned to file a petition of my own. You just beat me to it. I’ll back you up as far as I can on this. You’ve got enough to deal with in this case, without adding Jennings into the mix.”

 

Like what you’ve read so far? Consider donating to my fund in benefit of RAINN and The Rape Foundation. 50% of all proceeds will be divided between the charities and donated directly. 50% of the proceeds will go into a special fund to help with publication costs to get this book printed and more widely circulated, to further help these causes.

BECOME A PATRON – DONATE HERE

©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
ALL RIGHTS RESERVEDANY UNLAWFUL REPRODUCTION, DUPLICATION OR PRESENTATION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR IS SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION UNDER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS LAWS.

Burden of Proof Final

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 6

Chapter Six

August 7
5:00 AM

An insistent, annoying buzz filled Chelsea’s head, dragging her from the arms of oblivion and into the dim early morning light. Bleary-eyed, she slapped her alarm clock off and groaned as she sat up, swinging her long legs over the edge of the bed. Damn Justin Blakely, anyway! He’d pushed Marlene’s arraignment through the courts faster than she anticipated.

Little as she liked the idea of Marlene being locked up, she couldn’t stop the growing fear that behind bars was the only safe place for her client, right now. She counted on the extra time to prove her case, but unless she came up with a compelling eleventh-hour argument for a continuance, Marlene would be arraigned, today. Oh, well, maybe it was for the best, she told herself with a heavy sigh. No use putting off the inevitable; whether arraigned or indicted, Marlene didn’t have a prayer of avoiding trial, and the older woman couldn’t handle much more jail time, anyway.

Rising with a sigh, Chelsea stumbled into the bathroom and a hot shower, in hopes of reviving herself enough to make it through the day. Five minutes later, as she lathered her hair with her favorite apple-scented shampoo, Chelsea frowned. This case could fall apart without one woman’s testimony. She had to find Linda Travis!

Rinsing off, she stepped from the shower and dried off, wrapping her hair in the towel when she finished. Standing before the clearing mirror, she studied herself critically. More than once, Sally declared it a waste Chelsea didn’t date, with the way she looked. She had a naturally slim figure even her poor eating habits hadn’t managed to ruin, yet. Sure, there were dark smudges beneath her eyes, thanks to a restless night and too little sleep in recent days, and her skin was pale from stress. But those could be covered up with cosmetics.

Her body, however, was only just beginning to show the ravages of stress. She was still willowy, with full, but not disproportionately large breasts and curvy but slim hips. Letting her hands slide down over her creamy, freckle-dotted flesh, she wondered dreamily what Justin would think. Would he appreciate the silkiness of her skin, or its sun-sensitive pallor? The thought of his hands on her caused her nipples to pucker and her insides to tremble. Then, as her foggy thoughts cleared, she gasped in horror. Why should she care what Blakely would think? He was never going to get close enough.

 Never.

Chelsea frowned darkly at herself. There was no way she would ever let another Blakely hurt her. Even if Justin’s kisses did make her blood hot and her knees weak…

 Stop it, she commanded her libido as she yanked on her robe and strode back into the bedroom, grabbing up the phone. Forget coffee, this morning — she was too wired, now. Besides, she needed to check in with Sally before court.

The phone rang twice before a sleepy voice answered, “Hello?”

“Sal, it’s me. Did you find any leads on Linda Travis, yet?”

“Good morning to you, too,” Sally muttered wryly. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“It’s five-thirty AM.”

“God, Chels, I love you dearly, but I swear I’m gonna kill you.”

“Sorry. I’m due in court by eight-thirty. Now, did you find out anything?”

Sally sighed, and yawned. “No. I called in a few favors from an old friend to get him to watch her place, but there’s been no suspicious activity, so far. The store’s been closed, and no one unusual has been in or out of the building since you were there. I got Deke to fingerprint the place, too. Chels,” her voice grew grim. “The only prints he’s lifted so far belong to Linda and your client, Marlene Cavarella.”

Excitement zinged through Chelsea. Finally, a break! “So Marlene was there? That’s great news, Sal!”

“Not if Linda’s been kidnapped, it’s not,” Sally said. “The D.A.’s office will be all over that one, and your girl might end up facing kidnapping and breaking and entering charges on top of the murder rap.”

Chelsea’s high deflated. “Damn; you’re right. Linda’s the only one who can credibly give Marlene a rock-solid alibi. Any leads on where she might have gone?”

“I think the question should be why, not where.” Sally’s tone implied how little she, too, liked this loose end. “I’ve already checked, Chels, and Linda Travis is in this up to her neck. The first suspicious thing I flagged was in her connection to your client. She was friends with Marlene in high school, when Linda was dating Dominic. The girls had a falling out over him, according to my sources, and didn’t speak from their senior prom until about two years ago, when Marlene apparently renewed contact with Linda. Sis,” her tone turned grim. “All this makes it look like Marlene had a motive to want Linda Travis out of the way.”

Chelsea’s gut clenched, and nausea swirled in her stomach. Her case was shredding around her. “Well, keep at it, Sal. We need to find Linda, regardless of where that leads.”

“I agree,” Sally said. “Take care of yourself, Chels.”

“You, too. Tell Mom I said hi,” Chelsea said, before hanging up. As she returned the phone to its cradle, she drew a shuddering breath, and gathered her strength for the day ahead. She still had to face Justin Blakely and pretend she didn’t remember the scorching kiss they’d shared.

It was a lost cause to try ignoring her hormones, Chelsea decided an hour later as she watched Justin stride confidently into the courtroom in a dark brown suit that outlined his trim, muscular shape and intensified the piercing green of his eyes. As his gaze raked over her, those eyes flared with hunger, and Chelsea’s heart sped up, even as her palms went damp and her mouth turned to cotton. Nervously, she wet her lips, and watched his eyes darken further as they fixed on her tongue’s motion.

“Counselor,” he said, nodding, and the husky timbre of his voice made Chelsea’s knees weak. Good God, what was wrong with her? Chelsea snapped back into her cool courtroom demeanor, reminding herself this man she was mooning over was a Blakely — a corrupt, disgusting specimen somewhere below human on the evolutionary scale. Nodding crisply in his direction, she turned away as Marlene was led into the courtroom, determined to ignore Justin Blakely’s presence across the aisle if it killed her.

By the time the bailiff instructed them to rise for the judge’s entry, Chelsea’s tension had reached boiling point. Somehow, through the thrumming in her blood, she belatedly registered the judge’s identity.

 Willard Jennings.

Chelsea blanched, even as she locked her knees against a defeated collapse. Jennings? She’d drawn Jennings, of all people?

 I’m doomed, she thought, feeling the building pressure of unwelcome tears behind her eyes. God, was she going to break down here, in court? That would be a great start to her case — prove Jennings and his assumption women weren’t cut out for litigation right. Stiffening herself, she pushed aside her building despair over her crumbling case, and her rotten luck and forced herself to concentrate on her client’s innocence. She would find a way to prove it, somehow.

*****

Justin, watching Chelsea out of the corner of his eye, saw her face pale, and the shakiness of her stance, before she snapped bolt upright. He imagined she’d locked her knees, and concern slashed through him. Was she going to pass out? She looked even more haggard — if that was possible — than her hollow-faced client did. God, Jennings would eat her alive, and he could see she’d reached the same conclusion. Even as he watched, her eyes hardened to ice-blue chips, and her features set resolutely, like a soldier preparing for battle. Admiration stirred in Justin, and he barely suppressed the urge to smile. He couldn’t afford to go soft over Chelsea Hanover. He needed to keep his wits about him, for justice’s sake.

Judge Jennings, a formidable-looking man with the jowls of a bull dog and the cold glare of a Gestapo agent, glanced over the docket he was handed, harrumphed quietly in clear disgust, and raised that implacable black glare to fix on Marlene Cavarella.

“You are Mrs. Marlene Cavarella?”

“Yes.” Marlene’s whisper barely carried in the cavernous courtroom, and her head bowed meekly.

“Mrs. Cavarella, I hold here an indictment claiming that you did, on June third, willfully and with disregard to the value of human life, murder your husband, Dominic Cavarella. Do you understand this charge as it has been read to you?”

“Yes.” Her murmured answer wavered, and she trembled as if holding back tears. Jennings frowned, clearly disgusted by the display.

“How do you plead?”

Chelsea’s eyes raised level with the judge’s and in a firm, clear voice she said, “The defense enters a plea of not guilty, Your Honor.”

Jennings’ beefy face contorted in disdain. “Very well. Let the record reflect that the defendant is pleading not guilty to the charges.”

“We further request bail to be set, Your Honor,” Chelsea continued, undaunted. “Mrs. Cavarella is under considerable mental and emotional duress, and to keep her incarcerated under these circumstances constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Your Honor, it could be argued just as easily that stabbing a man sixty-four times with a butcher’s knife, in hopes of killing him, is also cruel and unusual punishment,” Justin said blandly. “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requests the denial of bail on the grounds that a person capable of such a gruesome execution is both capable and likely to commit another equally brutal offence.”

Chelsea’s eyes flashed rage as she shot him a scathing glance. “A woman of my client’s size is hardly capable, physically, of committing the murder of which she’s been accused, let alone a second like it–“

“Ms. Hanover,” Jennings leaned forward, his expression disapproving. “This is an arraignment. Kindly reserve your opening statements for the trial.” As Chelsea snapped her mouth shut, her cheeks flushing with rage and humiliation, Jennings continued. “As to the matter of bail, I’m not inclined to view size as a determining factor in the commission of a crime. In regards to your request for bail, I find sufficient grounds to believe your client is an opportunist. Her type will take a man for everything, including his life. As I’m not inclined to offer her the chance to prove me right, I’m denying bail. Mrs. Cavarella will be remanded to the custody of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution for the duration of this trial.”

Justin’s hackles rose, even as Chelsea straightened, rage flashing through her eyes. While it wasn’t uncommon for a judge to deny bail in a capital offence such as murder, he’d never seen a defendant’s sex used so openly against her, before. Justin let his own glare bore into Jennings, hating the arrogant, biased politician as he never had before. It would be a miracle if any of them got through this trial alive.

 

Like what you’ve read so far? Consider donating to my fund in benefit of RAINN and The Rape Foundation. 50% of all proceeds will be divided between the charities and donated directly. 50% of the proceeds will go into a special fund to help with publication costs to get this book printed and more widely circulated, to further help these causes.

BECOME A PATRON – DONATE HERE

©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
ANY UNLAWFUL REPRODUCTION, DUPLICATION OR PRESENTATION OF THIS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR IS SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION UNDER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS LAWS.

Burden of Proof Final

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 4

Chapter Four

Sunday, June 20

Maybe her case was a long shot, after all. Chelsea sighed heavily as she pulled into the almost-empty parking lot beside a large Victorian boasting a placard sign reading Hanover Investigations. It’d been a long, tense drive from Pittsburgh to the small town of Pierce, the usual hour-long trip elongated by the perpetual Pennsylvania construction. Now, looking up at the bright blue building before her, the weariness seeped from Chelsea, and a smile inched across her face. It would be good to see Sally again, even if it was on business.

Sliding from behind the wheel of her SUV, she grabbed her briefcase and squashed the fleeting wish business wasn’t what usually brought her home to Pierce. With a sigh, she strode up the brick sidewalk she and Sally helped their mother, Rebecca, lay a decade ago. Climbing the few wooden stairs to the porch, she pulled open the side door leading to Sally’s detective offices, and stepped into chaos.

Martha Kline, Sally’s ever-present and over-protective secretary, was muttering to herself as she rooted through reams of paperwork on her uncharacteristically messy desk. Behind her, file drawers stood open, and the phone on her desk continued to ring, ignored. Typically the calm center of any storm Sally created, Martha now looked frazzled and unhappy. Chelsea bit back a grin.

“Hi, Martha,” she said as she crossed the short length of the receptionist’s lobby. “Sally in?”

“She’s always in,” Martha complained, clearly not happy about that fact. “I know she only lives next door, but she shouldn’t be here. It isn’t right — a woman in her condition, working like this. She should be next door, with her feet propped up and a man to take care of her, not out chasing murderers and thieves!”

It was a common complaint of Martha’s these days that Sally shouldn’t be working while pregnant, but the edge of real worry in the older woman’s voice today wasn’t lost on Chelsea.

“Is she okay?” Worry knotted Chelsea’s brow. “Mom didn’t say anything about any problems, when I talked to her a few days ago.”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Martha said, then sighed, waving one hand dismissively. “We got a new case handed to us by one of Sally’s old bomb squad friends, and she refuses to take a break. Personally, I think it’s the whole baby thing. It’s just not right, you know.” Martha’s silver-haired head shook as she located a file and shoved it back into one drawer with more force than necessary. “In my day, when a fellow got some poor gal in the family way, he did the honorable thing, and married her.”

“Sally doesn’t–”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Martha waved off her protest. “She claims she’s happy, and this is how she wants it, but,” Martha shook her head again, her dark eyes telegraphing her disbelief, “I’ve caught her many times, sitting there staring out the window with a wistful, heartsick look on her face. She misses that boy, whoever he is.”

“Martha!” Sally’s voice called through the open office door. “You find that fax, yet? I need to call Jerianne and let her know where we are on this.”

“Just did, hon,” Martha called back. “You have a visitor.”

“Who?” Sally’s voice sounded wary, and a little wistful.

Taking her cue, Chelsea walked to the door, poking her head in to grin at the brunette woman seated behind the desk. “Hey, Sal!”

“Chelsea!” Sally’s face lit with a wide smile, turning her pretty face into the kind of beautiful that made even women take a second look. Chelsea shook her head, wondering how Jack Carney ever let her sister go. She doubted it was willingly, knowing Sally. “Come on in, sis. God, it’s good to see you.”

“It’s been less than a week,” Chelsea quipped, laughing, as she made her way through the perpetual clutter that was Sally’s office. Her sister had never been the domesticated type. “I thought pregnant women were supposed to go through a nesting phase, Sal, not a pack rat one. What’s all of this stuff?”

“Hazards of the job.” Sally grinned, but the motion looked forced. “New case.”

“So Martha said.” Chelsea looked at her sister in worry. “Are you sure you should be doing this, Sally?”

“Not you, too,” Sally groaned, rolling her eyes. “Mom’s been over here three times already today, pestering me to come back home and rest, and Martha keeps muttering about working too much in my ‘state’.” She sighed. “Look, I appreciate the concern; really. But I’m only three months along. I can’t exactly sit around for the next seven months, waiting for this kid to get born. I need to work.”

Chelsea heard what her sister wasn’t saying. At barely three months pregnant, Sally was right. She was fully capable, physically, of working. Her emotional state was far more worrisome. Sally just wasn’t the same since she came home from Houston a month and a half ago. “Have you decided what you’re going to do, yet?”

“No.” Sally sighed again, resting one hand against her still-flat midsection. “I have the paper’s number tacked up beside the phone, next door, but I’m not sure I can actually use it. I mean, what do I say? ‘Hi, I’m sorry I left you in Houston. Oh, and by the way, you’re going to be a daddy’? Like he’s going to believe that, or even care. I was a one-night stand, Chels. We agreed–”

“But you’re in love with him,” Chelsea argued. “And your baby deserves to know a daddy. We both went through the fatherless thing, sis, and I don’t want my niece or nephew to go through that.”

Sally’s gaze turned steely. “Neither do I, Chels, but I don’t have much of a choice. Better no father than an indifferent one. Jack probably doesn’t even remember Houston.”

Chelsea bit her lip. Sally was deliberately selling herself short. Her relationship with Jack Carney was only three months ago. From the way Sally talked about her time with Jack, when she talked about him at all, Chelsea doubted either one would ever forget Houston.

Knowing it was none of her business, Chelsea sighed in surrender. “It’s your call, sis. Just promise me you’ll at least call me before you leave for the hospital.”

A grin flashed across Sally’s face. “Now, why would I go into labor without my coach? You think I want to go through this alone?”

No, she didn’t, which was the problem. Sally was terrified of pregnancy, and even more of being a parent. She needed Jack to reassure her she could do it, but her sister was too damn stubborn for her own good, sometimes. So, covering her worry with a grin, Chelsea said, “You can’t convince me you’re a wimp, Sally Hanover. I’m your sister. I know you too well.”

“Yeah, you do.” Sally’s smile turned wistful. “We still on for Thursday?”

Chelsea grinned. Ever since they were teenagers, they had set a standing “Sister Night” for every Thursday night. Whenever they were in the same town, they never missed. “Wouldn’t miss it!”

Sally gave her a long, penetrating look. Chelsea resisted the urge to wince. She knew her attempt at a cheery mood wouldn’t fool Sally for long. “What’s with you? When you were down last week, you didn’t look so… tense.”

Unbidden, the memory of Justin’s kiss rose in Chelsea’s mind, making her chest tight and heat flush through her. Tense wasn’t the word for it. Under Sally’s speculative gaze, she forced nonchalance and shrugged. “I had a run-in with the ADA over a new case I’m working. I guess the whole thing just has me stressed.”

Sally laid down her pen and gestured for Chelsea to take a seat. Chelsea did, settling back with a weary sigh.

“This case is driving me nuts, Sal, and I only just got it,” she admitted, closing her eyes. “Most of the clear physical evidence points to my client being guilty, but my gut’s telling me exactly the opposite. There’s some questionable evidence, but nothing anyone’s been able to pin down, yet.”

“Trust your instincts. Yours have always been really good.”

“Not always,” she countered, new tension rising in her as she reminded them both of the only time she let her guard down.

“You have got to quit beating yourself up over that, Chels,” Sally said firmly. “Wasn’t enough damage done, without you adding to it?”

Chelsea sighed heavily. “I know. I just… this case keeps bringing so much of that back up in my mind, I guess.”

Sally’s expression grew concerned. “This the murder splashed all over the news, lately?”

“I’m representing Marlene Cavarella. She’s been charged with stabbing her husband, Dominic, sixty-four times, leading to his death.”

Sally whistled. “That’s a lot of overkill. What’s the evidence look like?”

“She was found laying, semi-conscious but unharmed, beside her husband’s body, his blood all over her, and the murder weapon clutched so tightly in her hand that the paramedics had to pry her fingers loose.”

Sally winced. “So far, it doesn’t sound like a great case, for you.”

“I know,” Chelsea said glumly. “But Marlene claims she’s innocent. She even gave me an alibi to check out, and a play-by-play of her whereabouts the entire day.” She frowned. “Sal, she has victim written all over her.”

“So, you’ve got an alibi. Didn’t it check out?”

Chelsea grimaced.

“That’s part of why I came to see you, actually.” She snapped open her briefcase and withdrew the photographs and file it contained. “If you’re not too busy, I need your help tracking down a witness. Her name’s Linda Travis, and she’s been missing for almost over two weeks.”

Sally frowned at the items Chelsea held out. “Chels, this is a matter for the police…”

“They’ve been informed,” Chelsea assured her, then sighed. “But they said they can’t do anything as long as there’s no solid proof she didn’t just leave on her own. They claim there’s no evidence of foul play.”

“And you’re sure she didn’t?”

“Sally, you said to trust my gut. Well, since I got out of the car at the Travis place, all it’s been screaming is kidnapped! Someone wants Marlene to take the fall for Dominic’s murder.”

Sally nodded grimly, taking the file. “I’ll look into it. I have a few contacts in the Pittsburgh area. I’ll see if I can’t get an official investigation rolling.”

“Thanks, Sally,” Chelsea said with a small exhalation of relief. “You have no idea how much this case means to me.”

Sally studied her shrewdly. “Oh, I think I do. But, Chels,” she leaned forward. “Be careful about playing with fire. You’re liable to get burned.”

“Speaking of playing with fire, there’s something else.”

Sally’s concerned frown deepened. “What’s that?”

“Do you still have that friend at the forensic lab, down south?”

“Joyce?” Sally nodded. “Yeah, why?”

“Could you talk to her about getting some evidence tested? I can provide the samples.”

“I can ask.” Sally shrugged. “But rumor has it the pathologist who runs the lab is a real hard-ass about evidence collection. Why don’t you save yourself the trouble, and just use one of the private labs your firm already has on retainer?”

Chelsea shook her head. She already considered — and discarded — that idea.

“This case is already a media circus. I need a lab the media won’t find out we’re doing testing at, too. It lowers the chance of some reporter getting hold of the results and contaminating my case before trial.”

“Okay. I’ll call Joyce and see if she can send me their collection requirements and procedures.”

Chelsea relaxed. Maybe her case wasn’t as hopeless as she feared.

Like what you’ve read so far? Consider donating to my fund in benefit of RAINN and The Rape Foundation. 50% of all proceeds will be divided between the charities and donated directly. 50% of the proceeds will go into a special fund to help with publication costs to get this book printed and more widely circulated, to further help these causes.

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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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Burden of Proof Final

COTW: Burden of Proof, Chapter 3

Chapter Three

Shaking her head at the insanity of men who believed a woman capable of a gruesome execution, but not of political or social acumen, Chelsea sighed as she stepped out from the oppressive jailhouse walls and into the bright June sunlight. Patting her purse, she smiled in satisfaction as she felt the soft thump of metal and plastic under her hand. Marlene’s story was safely on her recorder, her alibi secured in Chelsea’s head. All she had to do now was to verify the alibi, and they’d be ready for whatever Blakely planned to throw at them.

As she crossed the parking lot, Chelsea cast a wary glace toward the cluster of reporters peppering Detective Talbot with questions. At the moment, only Chelsea and her client knew for a fact she’d taken on Marlene’s case. Chelsea dreaded the day the press found out. This trial was high profile and already a media frenzy — exactly the kind of case most attorneys lived for. Exactly the kind of case she did everything she could to avoid.

Chelsea frowned, aware of the struggle ahead of her, even if her client was not. It wasn’t going to be an easy case to prove Marlene’s complete innocence. Especially not with the media already trying the case in the court of public opinion. Right now, as far as they were concerned, Marlene was guilty as hell. And, while Chelsea was convinced Blakely could never make a Murder One charge stick, Marlene had, by her own admission, been the last person to see Dominic alive. The murder weapon was found literally clenched in her hand, and she’d been covered in Dominic’s blood.

The only person who could possibly save Marlene from that damning evidence was this Linda Travis she’d mentioned. If that fell through… Chelsea’s face set grimly as she dug into her purse for the keys to her Ford Explorer. It wasn’t going to fall through, she promised herself. She wouldn’t let Blakely add another win to his near spotless record.

“Such a serious expression doesn’t belong on such a beautiful woman.”

The words, spoken in a mild, sexy voice she’d have recognized anywhere, sent Chelsea’s pulse skittering in a mixture of fear and unwanted anticipation. Snapping her gaze up, she met Justin Blakely’s lazy grin and smoldering green eyes. Bedroom eyes, her adoptive mother would call them. Staring into those thick-lashed, soulful eyes certainly made Chelsea wish for a bedroom.

Pulse skittering as she realized what she was admitting to, Chelsea pushed the thought, and the images it evoked, away. This man was the enemy, and she’d do well to remember it.

Letting her gaze slide from his, over his limber body, she schooled herself to objectivity. Not an easy pursuit, she admitted grudgingly, with a man who radiated masculinity and pure sin. He was leaning nonchalantly against the hood of her Sport Utility Vehicle, his well-muscled, trouser-clad legs crossed at the ankles and his arms crossed casually over his broad chest. With the stiff summer breeze ruffling his neatly cropped brownish-blond hair, he looked like a magazine model come to life. The effect, she decided as her breath backed up in her throat, was damn near lethal.

“What do you want, Blakely?” she asked, forcing herself to remember this man was an arrogant, dangerous opponent, and a Blakely, besides. He was not fantasy material; he had the power to destroy her, again. “I’m very busy.”

At her sharp tone, he stiffened, the lazy, sensual magnetism of a moment ago displaced by brisk efficiency. “I want to know what sob story Marlene Cavarella dished out to you, to get you in her corner.”

She glared at him as she moved to open the driver’s side door. Just what kind of brainless moron did he take her for? “Why? Because I’m a silly, sentimental female who’ll go to any length to stand by another woman?”

“No.” His eyes narrowed. “Because I don’t think you’d take the case without a reason.”

She lifted her chin in open defiance. “So who’s to say she gave me a sob story?”

The feral gleam in his eyes as he crossed in front of her SUV gave his answering smile a sardonic, dangerous cast. “Last I checked, you weren’t into losing cases, Counselor.”

She stiffened, righteous fury for the maligned Marlene Cavarella shooting through her. “You think I’m going to lose?”

“It’d be a long shot for you to win.”

She refused to let another Blakely intimidate her. With forced bravado, she shook back a cascade of coppery curls and offered him a saccharine smile. “Maybe I like long shots.”

His eyes took on a hooded look, an unholy gleam entering them.

“No,” he said as he took a step toward her. “You don’t. You like sure things, definite wins. You don’t ever risk losing, Chelsea.”

That unflattering, but accurate, observation pricked her, especially from this man. He made it sound like her being cautious was a bad thing. She didn’t imagine he’d ever done much particularly reckless in his own disciplined life. Only fools rushed into things with the intent of getting burned for their mistakes. Well, she’d been burned enough to learn it wasn’t worth the pain, and she had no intention of letting anyone close enough to do it again.

“So, what did your new client tell you?” Justin pressed, watching her intently.

“You know I can’t tell you that.” She glared at him again. “Attorney-client privilege.”

He frowned. “So you did take the case.”

She nodded curtly, meeting his assessing gaze. “Yes.”

His gaze grew darker, more intense, before his hand came up, fingers stroking a strand of flyaway hair from her face. The brush of his fingers against her skin set off a flurry of sensations Chelsea didn’t want to contemplate.

“Why do you believe she’s innocent?” he asked quietly.

Chelsea stiffened, calling herself a traitor even as a shiver of delight wound through her. There was no way she’d ever trust a Blakely again. Her glare pierced him.

“Because a ninety-eight pound, five-foot-two-inch woman can’t just overpower a six-foot-four-inch, two hundred-fifty pound weight lifter long enough to stab him even once, let alone sixty-four times. Because a woman who looks stricken and guilty for forgetting to call nine-one-one in a crisis would hardly be capable of hiding her guilt if she premeditatedly killed her husband.”

*****

Chelsea’s quiet words hit Justin square in the face, facts he could hardly argue. While he might have argued a good actress could hide or display guilt and grief at will, even he had to concede that a woman of Marlene Cavarella’s size would have to be operating in an emotional frenzy to stab her much-stronger husband, and even then, she would sustain wounds of her own before she managed to subdue him. He frowned. There went Murder One. The best he could hope for now was second degree. There was no way he’d accept Marlene Cavarella as innocent. Provoked, insane; whatever case Chelsea made, the crime scene evidence didn’t lie, and it said Marlene was as guilty as sin. He could only hope time and the detectives on the case could unravel how she’d carried it off.

The sound of a door slamming brought Justin out of his thoughts, just as Chelsea started the engine of her Explorer. Watching her drive away left him frozen inside, caught between duty and desire for the first time in his life. For some reason, he knew he’d have to sacrifice one for the other, and he had a sinking feeling he knew which would win out. It was an immensely depressing thought.

*****

The next morning, half an hour of negotiating Pittsburgh’s hellacious tunnels between Green Tree and the Strip District brought Chelsea to a block of brick warehouse buildings converted into shops and loft apartments in the Strip District.

Breathing in the mouthwatering scents of fresh bread and meat, mixed with an abundance of ethnic spices, Chelsea maneuvered her SUV into a parking space in front of a confectionary-white building with plate glass windows proclaiming Travis Catering in bright, blue, and flowing script. Even as she stared at the beautiful window display, however, a frown creased Chelsea’s brow, and an eerie tingling raced along her spine. Something was wrong; she could feel it.

Her hyper-vigilant awareness screaming at her, Chelsea studied the building and its environs. Beyond the colorful display of patriotic symbols and plastic foods, the interior of the shop was dark. Glancing at her watch, Chelsea noted that it was shortly after eleven in the morning on a busy Friday, and less than two weeks from the Fourth of July. Concern etched her brow. Surely, being closed like this constituted a bad business practice for anyone in the food industry. Or maybe the store just looked closed.

Climbing from her SUV, Chelsea strode toward the door, her eyes searching the darkened interior for some sign of movement. Worried, she tried the door, only to find it locked.

“Looking for someone?”

Chelsea turned at the sound of a voice, to find herself face-to-face with a jovial-looking Asian man dressed in slacks, button-down shirt, and loafers.

“Linda Travis,” Chelsea said with a rueful nod. “Do you know when she opens?”

He shook his head, his expression worried.

“Very strange goings-on, there,” he nodded toward the darkened store. “I’ve been Linda’s neighbor for nearly five years, and I’ve never seen that store closed.”

“Neighbor?”

He nodded. “I’m George Tzou. I own the Happy Dragon,” he explained, gesturing toward the next storefront, where an assortment of Chinese art was festively displayed. “I sell jade and fine jewelry.”

Chelsea offered him a small smile, shaking his extended hand. “Chelsea Hanover. I’m an attorney.”

“Attorney? Linda in trouble?”

“No.” Chelsea shook her head. “She’s a potential witness in a case I’m handling. Do you know Ms. Travis well?”

A broad smile split his face. “Oh, yes. Linda’s a very social person, very approachable. She runs a business owner’s organization for this block, and I doubt there’s a person who frequents this area who doesn’t know her. Very friendly.”

“And she’s never been closed?”

His smile faded, the worry lines reappearing on his forehead. “Up until the other day, no. She used to be there, cooking up a storm, until ten or eleven at night, most nights. Then, suddenly, she’s closed for two days straight during one of her busiest times of the year, and her assistant, Merrill, hasn’t been able to reach her.”

Uneasiness knotted in Chelsea’s stomach. So far, George Tzou’s words provided nothing except more questions, prime of which was, where was Linda Travis?

“Do you know where Ms. Travis lives?”

He pointed toward a nondescript door nestled between the two storefronts. “She lives in an apartment above the store.”

“She owns the building?”

He nodded. “Yes. She has two tenants in her building, besides myself.”

“And no one’s seen her coming or going?”

“No.” He sighed. “When Merrill first came to me, I spoke with both other tenants. They live on the third floor, so it didn’t surprise me when they both said they hadn’t seen her, but Sheryl Turner, one of the tenants, said she called down to Linda about her kitchen sink not working, and Linda never called her back or went up. Highly unusual.”

“And her car?”

“Blue van. It’s parked around back.”

Chelsea frowned. There was most definitely something wrong here. “Didn’t anyone call the police?”

He nodded. “Merrill did. Twice. They said they didn’t have any reason to believe she hadn’t left on her own, since she’d still been working, with the store’s door locked, when I went up Wednesday night.”

The eerie tingling at the base of Chelsea’s neck grew. “Do you have a key to her apartment?”

He nodded. “Linda left a key, in case she accidentally locked herself out.” He smiled. “She’s always losing her keys. Bad habit for a landlady.”

“May I borrow it, please? I’d like to make sure she’s all right.”

He studied her for a long moment, and then nodded. “If I may accompany you, yes.”

Chelsea nodded her agreement, but cautioned, “Just don’t touch anything, no matter what we find.”

As George returned to his store to get Linda’s spare key, Chelsea studied the building with a critical eye. Three windows on the second floor stood open, letting in the summer breeze, but no noise drifted out from them. Dead silence settled over the building, and caused Chelsea’s taut nerves to pull tighter. Suddenly, she wished Sally was with her. Her sister was a trained Private Investigator, a former bomb squad dynamo who could usually tell at a glance what was wrong with a scene.

Chelsea paced restlessly, cursing her bad luck. Without Linda Travis, Marlene’s alibi fell apart on the spot. It wasn’t enough Marlene left the morning of Dominic’s death — she was angry, and they’d argued. That gave her motive. The murder weapon was one of Marlene’s kitchen knives, which gave her means. Without Linda’s testimony, it wouldn’t be hard for Blakely to establish opportunity, either.

Damn it.

George returned with the keys, and Chelsea followed him silently as they climbed the stairs to Linda’s apartment. Inside, Chelsea stopped dead as she heard George swear softly. Her eyes wide in dismay, Chelsea took in the disaster inside Linda Travis’ apartment, before turning to look at the man beside her.

“Tell me she’s a messy housekeeper.”

He shook his head. “Not Linda. She’s a very orderly person, very neat. Has,” he swallowed hard, “do you think she’s been robbed?”

Chelsea glanced over the contents of the room, before shaking her head. “Not unless the robber was looking for something specific. Her TV, stereo, and antiques are still here, and I’m betting her jewelry’s right where she left it, too.”

His dark eyes widened in fear. “Then what do you suppose–?”

Chelsea frowned, feeling her case crumbling beneath her feet. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.

“Mr. Tzou, would you please call the police and report the break-in, and remind them Ms. Travis is still missing. I think she might be in danger.” And any hope of saving Marlene along with her. Chelsea scowled. Whoever did this, whoever killed Dominic Cavarella, would pay. She wouldn’t rest until she proved Marlene’s innocence once and for all.

*****

If there was one part of his job Justin hated more than any other, it was dealing with the press. Sure, he could have left that to Talbot and the other investigators on the case, and for the most part, he had. Appealing to the public, however, could get them badly needed witnesses, so he did his face time with the cameras. He even spoke to the witness and EMTs, and all responding officers to the scene.

With Chelsea Hanover sitting opposing counsel, he wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Bad enough she got under his skin, and he was having trouble concentrating on anything other than the fascinating paradox of a woman so driven she sent most of the District Attorney’s office fleeing for their lives at the mention of her name, but whose nervous demeanor and frightened eyes gave her the look of a cornered doe in the middle of hunting season.

Her obsessive dedication to this case rattled him. Chelsea Hanover didn’t defend anyone whose innocence she didn’t believe in. That she took on Marlene as a client left him questioning whether or not this case was the slam dunk it appeared to be when it first landed on his desk two weeks ago. Her staunch defense of Marlene Cavarella, from the very beginning, left him with one indisputable fact — if he didn’t do his due diligence and speak with everyone involved with the case directly, this case could blow up in his face, later. And if there was anything he hated worse than talking to the press, it was a case imploding at trial.

Justin grimaced, and tossed his suit jacket over the back of a chair as he rounded his desk and dropped into his own chair, already logging into his computer as he did. The witness interview with the victim’s daughter, Tracy, netted him a story he questioned, and the First Responders hadn’t provided him anything he didn’t already know about the scene — he hadn’t expected they would — but it did give him an idea or two where to start in getting a confession out of Marlene Cavarella.

His desk phone rang, and Justin snagged it, even as he scrolled through e-mails from the lab and investigators. “Blakely.”

“She’s back. Again.” Talbot grunted out the last word, his annoyance clear. “She’s demanding access to the physical evidence. What do I tell her?”

Justin’s lips twitched, and he wasn’t even sure if he was annoyed or impressed, himself. One thing for sure — Chelsea Hanover wasn’t just stubborn. She was a bulldog, when she was on a case. And she was getting on Talbot’s last nerve, apparently.

A wry grin tugging up his lips, he answered Talbot, even as he opened an e-mail from the lab. “Direct her my way. Tell her to direct all of her inquiries to my office. I’ll handle it.”

Talbot grunted again, and Justin thought he heard the man mumble something that sounded like “Good luck,” before the line cut off, and a dial tone filled his ear, instead.

Hanging up the phone, Justin focused on the e-mail from Penny James. A single line of text read Come to the lab. We need to talk.

Justin’s gut clenched. What did Penny find? Normally, she just e-mailed him the result forms, for his file, and left him to call her if he had any questions. Getting summoned to the lab was rare, and only rarely good news.

Scrubbing his hand over his face, Justin levered himself back out of his seat and, with a heavy sigh, bypassed the chair where his suit jacket still hung, and headed for the lab, tugging loose his tie as he went. God, he hoped Penny had good news to tell him.

 

Five minutes later, Justin stopped in the doorway of Forensic Technician Penny James’ lab and leaned one shoulder against the door frame.

“Tell me you have something good.”

He knew better than to cross the threshold without permission. The sixty-two-year-old grandmother of four scolded him like one of her grandkids a number of times when he was a rookie prosecutor about cross-contamination and improper attire for the lab.

Now, she glanced up at him over the rims of her glasses, her brown eyes twinkling in welcome. “Depends on what you consider ‘something good,’ young man.”

“At the moment, I’ll take whatever you’ve got.” Normally, he enjoyed matching wits with Penny. She had a brilliant mind, and a sharp sense of humor. He knew she and his Uncle Mic went way back, but he never dared ask how far, or how close.

Today, however, with Chelsea’s assertions of her client’s innocence ringing in his ears, he was just too weary, and too worried, to muster up the fortitude for one of Penny’s brain teasers.

“You’re sure in a mood, today.” She tsked beneath her breath and turned toward her desk, flipping through the files neatly stashed in the drawer there. “Case got you on edge?”

He opened his mouth to agree, but the words wouldn’t come out, as Chelsea’s thunderous green eyes seared through his mind, again. No, he was pretty sure the source of his mood wore a skirt and blazer that looked more second-hand than high-end. His breath caught at the memory of her slim form — the woman really needed to eat more — severely controlled red hair, and flashing green eyes… and he didn’t want to let his mind wander that way. No matter what he wanted, for years now, Chelsea Hanover wasn’t going to ever give in. She might look like sex up and walking, but she made it pointedly clear she considered him somewhere beneath pond scum on the evolutionary chain.

“I just need to know if this case is going to fall apart on me, Penny.”

She frowned. “Well, I don’t know anything about that. All I can tell you is, at the moment, the evidence is confusing.”

His own lips turned down. “How do you mean?”

“The autopsy report says the victim wasn’t a smoker. Are any of your suspects?”

Since he only had one, and there was no indication Marlene Cavarella smoked, he shook his head. “No. Why?”

“Because the swabs taken at the scene turned up a trace of tar and nicotiana tabacum around the wounds. The same trace turned up on the swabs we took here in the lab, off the knife.”

“Tobacco?” Justin didn’t like the sound of that. It hinted there might be another suspect. Tension stirred in his gut. Could Chelsea be right?

He didn’t want to believe it. Not yet. There was still far too much evidence against Marlene that couldn’t be explained away. “That’s it?”

She glanced over at him, looking over the tops of her glasses. “That’s significant, young man.”

“But not conclusive.”

She shook her head. “Not one way or another, no.”

“So, basically what you’re telling me is that, even though the prime suspect was found next to the victim, covered in blood, and with the murder weapon in her hand, none of the evidence you found conclusively proves she committed the crime.”

Peggy lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I know it’s baffling, but the evidence doesn’t lie, young man, and aside from fingerprints that appear to have been deposited on the weapon after it was used to stab your victim, there’s no physical evidence to prove Mrs. Cavarella committed this crime. Even the blood on her clothes and skin are more consistent with after-death transfer. I went over her clothes three times, and couldn’t find a single cast-off pattern. I don’t have to tell you that with a stabbing this brutal, the perpetrator should have been covered with spatter from the attack.”

Justin rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. “You realize I have to turn all this over to the defense, right? Hanover’s going to have a field day with this.”

Peggy’s lips twitched. “And if that’s the part of all this that’s got you worried, young man, we have bigger problems than this case.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I’m more concerned about what we did find than what we didn’t. None of it matches the alleged attacker, and if she’s not the killer…”

“Then we still have a brutal murderer out there, running free.” The idea was sobering, but he really didn’t see how the murderer could be anyone but Marlene Cavarella.

“I’m still waiting on DNA results from swabs taken of the blood on the knife,” Penny offered. “That should give us something definitive.”

“Because killers who stab often end up cutting themselves as well,” Justin concluded.

“Right. And I’ve sent some of the samples to a colleague at the Bunker, down in Haitsburg. He’s a brilliant trace evidence expert, and I’m waiting to see if he comes to the same conclusions I did, before I release the results.”

Justin frowned. As a rule, he didn’t like forensics being farmed out to other labs. “Why? I trust your results, Penny.”

“Given the samples, I’ll feel more comfortable with my results if they’re corroborated by an outside source. It’s the trace we found in the blood sampled from the print on the phone, and the unknown footprint found beside the body. That trace wasn’t found anywhere else at the scene.”

Justin sighed heavily, and tugged at his already-loosened tie, unbuttoning the top button of his dress shirt. Nausea gripped him, and he wondered if he was in for a strike two against Hanover.

“All right. Send me the results when you get them. And, if you wouldn’t mind, could you copy Chelsea Hanover, at Marshall, Bateman, and Powell, as well?”

Penny cast him a curious glance, but nodded without further comment, turning back to her task. Leaving the lab behind, Justin headed back out onto the night-draped streets, turning up Forbes Avenue toward the Courthouse, and his office. He had no idea where the evidence would end up leading, now, but he just had to keep his attention on finding justice. The rest would take care of itself.

 

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©2006 BURDEN OF PROOF BY ESTHER MITCHELL
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